Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Oxford History of Western Music, Pt. 13

Although the circle of fifths and its modulatory properties had been theorised in the sixteenth century, it was Arcangelo Corelli who imported the theory into the practical domain. Instead of using continual "perfect" fifths, a single diminished fifth kept the cycle within the diatonic realm, and thus allowed each scale degree to potentially act as a harmonic root (as opposed to being defined by its melodic resolution tendencies).
The result was that Corelli, who only wrote instrumental music, could give the sort of formal structure to instrumental music that vocal music derived from text. Thus Italian instrumental music in the 1680s exhibited a fully elaborated tonal system; pieces began and ended in the tonic key, travelled to the dominant (V), and possibly visited other keys close by on the circle of fifths. What was unique about this use of the circle of fifths was that it played a global, structural role.
The extravagance of fifth-related harmony was often counterbalanced by descending melodic sequences, which created smooth voice leading through the sevenths of thirds of the harmony. In contrast, ascending sequences allowed composers to modulate to relatively distant key areas via what we now call "secondary dominants," setting up the inevitable "unravelling" of harmonic tension via the circle of fifths.
For composers, they now had a way to create tension and release over a large structure without relying on text. Listeners came to listen to these pieces differently; the momentum created by these harmonic structures required closer attention. Their attention was rewarded in experiencing the waves of tension and release, or implication and realization, crafted by composers. Hence an important step had been taken towards instrumental music's autonomy.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Oxford History of Western Music, Pt. 12

Pg. 173, vol. 2:

Speaking of Opera Seria.

"The highest arbiter of taste and practice was the ruler or patron; next in order of clout came the audience; next the singer; next the librettist. The composer was there to serve them all."

It's interesting to me that we know think of the arbiters of taste in almost the opposite order. Such ideas are the effects post-enlightenment education. Perhaps the most pertinent idea here then, is that much of the music we consider Art, and many of the techniques used in most of music we listen to, comes from a time when the composer was very far down the ladder of power.

The reception of Opera itself in the early 1700s is testament the place music occupied in society. The only times audience members were really required to pay attention was when the king or patron, who the opera also presented as a symbol of all that is good in the world, was in attendance. Otherwise, people were free to talk, wander in and out, play cards, and relieve themselves in chamber pots. Most audience members also new all of the operas extremely well, meaning they could pop in or out whenever they pleased depending on when their favorite arias or singers were on.
Singers themselves thus needed to draw the audience in with virtuosity, improvisation and diva-like behavior. Caffarelli, a virtuoso castrati of the day, was arrested for refusing to sing, mocking other performers, and practically molesting a female singer on stage, only later to be reinstated by the opera company because he was the public's darling.

So, singers behaved, musically and personally, much more like pop singers do today, and the reception of music was more akin to the way we watch television than the way we sit in an opera house.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Oxford History of Western Music, Pt. 11

The first appearance of pieces exhibiting the title "concerti" are by Andrea Gabrielli from 1585, and might be described as Masses for voices that are organised into antiphonally organised groups such that their contrasting timbres and musical characters form the main thrust of the work.
That only some of the voices are marked "a cappella" suggests that the other "choirs" are actually played by instrumental ensembles. Thus the earliest use of "concerto" suggests, simply, voices and instruments.
Ten years later the Bolognese organist Adriano Banchieri's piece Concerti ecclesiastici a otto voci was published including a seperate part for the organist that contained a harmonic "reduction" of the many vocal and instrumental parts. Accompanied songs soon after were published with an even more streamlined organ part, called the basso continuo.
The basso continuo was not "invented" at this time. Simply, publishers were now documented a practice that organised had long used in their "oral" tradition.
Interestingly, this new development gave rise to backlash among some organists who saw the published, "fully-realised" basso continuo part as an easy way for the lazy to play something that previously only the studied could.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Oxford Histroy of Western Music, Pt. 10

The Madrigal (music set to secular poetry) became the hotbed for music experimentation in the sixteenth century. With Ars Perfecta composers such as Josquin streamlining composition to as perfectly express holy texts as clearly as possible (although not without incredible craftsmanship and feats of "composition"), composers used secular texts to create links between the expression in text and music.

Hence the representation of text became the challenge for many composers, and resulted in many different forms of radical experimentation in terms of texture, melody and harmony. Luca Marenzio's Solo e penso. Is the first example of the entire chromatic scale in a piece of music; it begins on F-above-middle-C and proceeds, by semitone, to cover the range of a major 9th, before descending again. Some semitone steps were diatonic, that is, between the 3rd and 4th or 7th and 8th degree of an ionian scale, or were chromatic, that, spelt using a different accidental on the same letter name. The text (Alone and thoughtful I pace the most deserted fields/with slow and heavy steps) is expressed through this mono-rhythmic and mono-intervallic soprano melody. The resulting harmony, if we were to use a system of harmonic analysis based on the 18th and 19th century, is unconventional. The fact of the matter is, however, that this harmony arises out of Marenzio's want to give life to text, rather than experiment with harmony for its own sake.

The use of the complete chromatic scale also suggested a refinement of the tuning system to equally space the 12 semitones through the octave while maintaining the 2:1 ratio of frequencies between octaves.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Oxford History of Western Music, Pt. 9

Although written traces of instrumental dance music date back to the thirteenth century, the earliest extensive collections of instrumental dance music come in the form of the fifteenth century collections of bassadanza (in Italian) or basse danse (in French), meaning "low dance." That term referred to the height of the dancer's feet off of the floor. "Low dances" were generally the stuff of the upper classes and nobility.

These collections of bassdanza resemble the notation of Gregorian chant, rectangular figures on a staff, but with one difference: large strings of letters now adorned the pages.

What these manuscripts actually document were improvised accompaniments to dances over a given bass lines (or "tenor," as they were known at that time). The ensemble, know as alta capella, musicians formed something akin a guild, transferring their craft to one another via aural, rather than notated forms, hence this music's delayed entry into the literate tradition.

In the final section of the bassadanza book composer Diego Ortiz writes: "I thought I'd include the following recercadas on these bass lines that are usually called tenors in Italy, but that are mainly played as written here, in four parts, with the recercada over them." What follows is an improvisation not accompanied as it would normally be: by a cantus firmus in long note values, but a series of harmonic cells that can each be repeated in order to prolong the improvisation, if needed.

Thus, the tenor has now become what we might call a "ground bass," and forms the first harmonic-driven structure in Western art music. They create harmonic structures that are not born from voice leading but exists purely as vertical structures, and "accompany" an improvisation.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Oxford History of Western Music, Pt. 8

Continental musicians adopted the cyclic Mass from the English as the standard "high" genre in the mid-the-early 1400's. As such, the Mass became the form composers were most drawn to to demonstrate their compositional prowess, something that had been happening since the Notre Dame school and can be found in the development of the isorhythmic motet, for example.
Each movement of a mass utilises the same "Cantus Firmus," and, seeing each movement's texts were drawn from disparate parts of the larger service, exemplifies the role literacy played in developing new forms in music; the mass' movements were combined only because of the common melody, not because of any over-arching textual narrative.
Around 1440, an anonymous English composer (possibly John Dunstable) created Missa Caput: a composition that reached over and above previous levels of grandeur. It is the first documented polyphonic composition in four parts. Scribes adopted a new way of naming the four voices: the tenor remained as such, while the parts directly above and below became known as contratenor altus and contratenor bassis respectively. The top-most part was known as the superius.
At cadences, the tenor and alto parts follow the convention of resolving, in contrary motion, from an imperfect consonance (a sixth or third) to a perfect consonance (octave or unison). The only way to have the two other voices form consonances with both the tenor and alto while remaining independent of them is to sing notes that result in two triads a fifth apart. Here, we have the first explicit example of the perfect cadence, V-I. Using a Landini sixth to, say, the soprano, would result in the fourth degree of the mode sounding, giving the V chord an added "seventh."
This should not be viewed as the "beginning" of tonal harmony; that is our tendency to see (early) examples as essences. However, it is a point where developments in form and the fusing of continental and English approaches to harmony helped give rise to occurrences we now regard as conventions.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Oxford History of Western Music, Pt. 7

One of the things I love most about this book is Taruskin's quasi-philosophical interjections to remind the reader what they are and aren't reading.

In his introduction, which is identical for each volume, Taruskin explains that his book should be viewed more as a history of people and societies, rather than of music. Hence many "developments" in music are linked to shifts in the function and reception of music in different parts of a socio-political climate. Perhaps a good example is the Notre Dame's music academy, which gave rise to the Ars Nova style. This was music composed by literate, educated types, who were part of a community (that is, other like-minded composers) where invention and innovation in composition was encouraged. Hence such forms as the isorhythmic motet and the canon came to be used a demonstrations of compositional finesse.

But I digress . . .

I write this post simply to quote one of Taruskin's musings, which also seem to really hit home for me. From page 381 (almost half-way!) of Volume 1:

When periods are essentialized, moreover, we may then begin seeing objects classed within them in invidious comparative terms as more of less essentially medieval of Renaissance. We may become burdened with the considerations of purity or fidelity to a Zeitgeist (a "spirit of the time") that never burdened contemporaries. And that is because unless we are very cautious indeed, we can forget that the Zeitgeist is a concept that we, not "the time," have constructed (or abstracted). We may then value some objects over others as being better, or even as being "the best" expressions of "the spirit of the Middle Ages" or "the spirit of the Renaissance." If this sort of essentialism seems innocuous enough, we might transpose the frame of reference from the chronological to the geographical, and reflect on what happens when people become concerned over the purity or genuineness of one's essential Americanism or Africannes or Croathood.

I'm loving this book.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Oxford History of Western Music, Pt. 6

Ars Nova theorists Philippe de Vitry and Jehan des Murs wrote treatises on the theoretical aspects of music. They sought to reconcile the rhythmic character of the twelfth-century motet, where a "longa" was equal to twice the "breve," and the thirteenth-century, "Franconian," motet, where the "longa" equalled a "perfection" of three "tempora."

From a mathematical perspective, the innovations that reconciled those rhythmic irregularities were the by-product of the theory of exponential powers and the theory of "harmonic numbers."

In basic terms, it was proposed that the breve could be broken into 3 (perfect, deriving from the holy trinity) or two (imperfect) semibreves. Semibreves could then also be broken into perfect or imperfect parts. There are four combinations of these:

1. Breve division: 3      Semi-breve division: 3

2. Breve division: 3      Semi-breve division: 2

3. Breve division: 2     Semi-breve division: 3

4. Breve division: 2     Semi-breve division: 2

The breve was roughly the equivalent of what we might now consider a bar. Therefore, combination 1 might represent 9/8 time, combination 2 3/4 time, combination 3 6/8 time,and combination 4 2/2 time.

One main difference between this and our notion of time signatures is that the above division do not dictate an accentuation scheme.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Oxford History of Western Music, Pt. 5

Hermannus Contactus, a monk in the Swiss abbey of Reichenau, proposed that the six-note chord, C-A sums up, with greatest possible economy, the "sound" of Gregorian chant. Therefore the "finals" (see last post), where extended downwards to include the C. The tetrachords beginning on those finals (now C, D, E, and F) now begin to point to what we now think of as major and minor tonality.

The Italian monk, Guido of Arezzo, proposed, around 1030, placing nuemes on the lines and spaces of a ruled staff to define their precise pitch. He used colours, and then clefs, to denote "key lines"; points of reference to be used to find the pitches of the surrounding notes.

A specialist in ear-training, Guido chanced upon a tune (the hymn Ut queant laxis) that not only contained each diatonic interval up to and including a fifth, but where each half-line began on each of the notes proposed by Harmannus. The syllables at these points (corresponding with C, D, E, F, G, and A) are Ut, re, Mi, fa, Sol, and la. What we now know as sol-fege.

The full major scale came about when singers in the early seventeenth century began adding an extra note (si, later becoming ti) at the top of Hermannus's hexachord. Guido achieved something similar by transposing and superimposing the hexachord back onto itself, thus creating the gamut: a full range of pitches that were later represented on the Guidonian hand. Placing this pitches on the hand was a technique derived from public speakers and the like, and acted as a mnemonic aid. It is also where such expressions as "At one's finger-tips" or "rule of thumb" come from (the thumb on Guido's hand contains the first, most basic note of the gamut).

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Oxford History of Western Music, Pt. 4

A tonarius was a kind of index that grouped antiphons according to their psalm tones. They were created to assist finding applicable pieces for various church services, but also led to early theorists and analysts identifying the various ways the finalis (final note) and reciting tone (usually a fifth above) could be "filled-in" using step-wise motion. This led to four "species," each with it's own combination of semitones and tones to create a pentachord. The ending notes of these four species were dubbed the "four finals": D, E, F and G. The pentachord A-E was considered a doulbing of the first (D-A), while the one begining of B was deemed unusable due to it's including two semitones.

Chants ending on the four finals were then also categorised into two families. One where the final was at the bottom of the range of the melody, and one where it was in the middle. Analysts then categorised the different way the four species extended up (to the octave) and down (to the fifth) in the antiphons. The former were named "authentic" and the latter "plagal."

Thus the modes as we now know them (and named after tribes in Greece as well as Asia-minor) were first used as a method of categorising Gregorian chants, and only later became used as a basis for composition; chants composed after tonaries had been assembled demonstrate more clearly, in their melodic turns as well as their structure, the relationship between the final and reciting tone.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Oxford History of Western Music, Pt. 3

  • The Kyrie is a chant from the Franco-Roman Mass, derived from earlier forms of Congregational singing. The earliest sources of Kyries were little books called Kyriale. They contained two versions of each melody, a syllabic version along with a melismatic version. There is evidence to suggest that both verions were in usage, rather than one developing out of the other. If this is the case, it seems likely that the syllabic version was used as a mnemonic device to remind singers of the correspondence between notes and syllables, while the melismatic version was a guide to the intricate melody of the chant. It was this need to convey all of this information at once that could well have led to the development of the staff.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Oxford History of Western Music, Pt. 2

More fun facts.

  • Melismatic melodic turns helped group and identify chants together, and acted in a similar way to the term mode as defined in it's earliest usages
  • Our concept of a mode, more closely related to the final note of a melody, has less in common with Gregorian chant, and is a product of Frankish and Italian music theorists in the tenth century, when they made efforts to categorise the music of the Roman church according to ancient Greek music theory.
  • The harmonic series, often used to show that "naturalness" of the diatonic scale, was actually only discovered in the eighteenth century. According to one fable, Pythagoras passed by a blacksmith shop, heard pitches, and used the weights of the anvils to determine the pitches, which corresponded to the intervals of the perfect 4th, perfect 5th, and tone. Transposing this same pitch set (0, 5, 7) to begin on the any other those notes gives rise to the pentatonic scale.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Oxford History of Western Music, Pt. 1

I've started reading Richard Taruskin's momentous work. which covers western music from it's earliest notations to the end of the twentieth century. I've a loved Taruskin's writing ever since I got a copy of "The Danger of Music and other Anti-Utopian Essays."

The sheer size of this collection, combined with my inability to remember everything I read has lead to decide to make short posts that document some of the interesting things I find on the way.

  • Music notation arose out of political and geographical changes: the music sung in the churches of Rome migrated north to the Frankish kingdom after the two empires combined to protect themselves from the efforts of the Lombard kingdom to expand their southern border. No one really thought the notation of music was particularly interesting, so no one thought to chronicle it.
  • Gregorian chant is not a "primitive" form of music making, but was rather a rebellion against the extravagant (and probably polyphonic and antiphonal) music used in Christian rituals as it became the official religion of the late Roman Empire.
  • Melismatic singing, rather than being that annoying thing we think of as developing in modern pop music, was the highest form of musical devotion to God, where multiple notes could be used for a single syllable.
Stay tuned for more, if you'd like.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Masters Thesis

I'm very happy to share with you all the final version of my Masters thesis, titled: Elliott Carter's Rhythmic Language: A Framework for Improvisation.

I suppose at this point I could pen a lengthy reflection on the process of writing, research, performance, the course itself, or perhaps it's demise, but at this stage I'll endeavour to keep things very short.

Dr. Donna Coleman is by far and away one of the most inspiring and instructive teachers I've come across. Her enthusiasm seems to know no bounds, and her piano playing is always awe-inspiring, even more so at close quarters. I actually already owned Abbey Whiteside's famous book, On Piano Playing before I started with Donna, but it was my lessons with her that transformed that book from mere descriptions to a physical sensation I then learned and continue to refine.

The thesis details my analysis of one piano piece of Carter's, 90+ (1994), and my efforts to use the rhythmic language contained therein as a basis for my own music. My discoveries along the way have profoundly changed the way I think about rhythm.

As with most theses, it seems, my thesis is pretty dry to read, but hopefully it contains some useful information for those who are interested. I also hope that it might act as guidance for those wishing to pursue a similar topic.

Finally, it seems to me that, to paraphrase a friend of mine, that 'complex' rhythms can be used for good and evil. To my mind, this means being mindful to allowing the music to breathe, have space, and create drama. In the end (and this hopefully does not come off as too shameless a plug), I hope the reader will listen to (perhaps even buy) my music as the final product of all this work. My trio release from earlier this year, Sarcophile contains recordings discussed in this thesis.

The thesis can be downloaded from:

For audio please check out:

Monday, July 2, 2012

Songs Without Words

I'm in Europe at the moment, so last night I joined some friends to watch the European Cup final between Spain and Italy.

I was struck by the fact that, like most national anthems, the Italian Il Canto degli Italiani has words, while the Spanish, Marcha Real, does not.

Needless to say, both anthems carry significant meaning for their respective nations. Surely there's no stronger indicator of music's ability to carry meaning, not through words or purely musical elements (most national anthems, it seams, a built on common practice harmonic and melodic vocabulary) but through how that piece is positioned in a society's psyche and how it is associated with the defining elements of a society, or in this case, country.

During the opening ceremony of the game, I must admit thinking that the Italians looked more passionate (practically) screaming their hearts out, while the Spanish team stood their motionless. Striking also, were the contrasting ritualistic aspects: the Italian crowd were (I assume) deafening, and a choir stood and sang behind the players, while the Spanish stood motionless, accompanied by no-one but the recording.

Spain trounced the Italians, 4-nil. A victory for the social standing of word-less song?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

More Inspiration . . .

Phil Treloar writes about music, being Australian, and how the two might interact. He also makes music I enjoy very much. His "Other Narratives" series are well-worth acquiring; I eagerly await the next instalment.

One of my favourite essays discussing the plight of classical music in today's society, using the (in)famous Joshua Bell experiment as a point of departure:

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Things of inspiration . . .


Something about Debussy's transition around 1.36; from such a serene section into a sort of disorientating and foreboding section really knocks me out. Harmonically, I get the sense that by stretching the boundaries of tonality Debussy is able to make harmonic transitions without explicitly leading the listener through a series of cadences and the like. The same hits me at 3:00, where overlapping harmonies allow the more 'tonal' passages to gradually emerge without recourse to weather-beaten harmonic progression.
There are moments in the second movement that remind me of Stravinksky (melodically) and Carter (textually).

Where the tune slows down but swings more! There's an amazing sense of broadening in many of the cuts from these sessions. Sure, the solos are also fantastic, but it really feels like, so often, the most joyful passages are in the final choruses of collective improvisation.

4:35! Warne Marsh is someone I've come to late, but it knocks me out how hard he pushes himself in improvising through classic harmony. Reminds me of Wayne Shorter in it's intensity and self-editing.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

More three-part polyrhythm practice . . .

This time using speeds in ratios 7 : 5 : 3, and over a I-VI-ii-V in Eb major.

The metronome coincides with the slowest pulsation throughout the modulations.

The permutations of the three ratios throughout this recording are:

7          7          5          7          7
5          3          3          3          5
3          5          7          5          3

For what it's worth, I always hear the pulsation lowest in pitch as the primary pulse; that it, the "beat."


Monday, February 13, 2012

New albums + quiz/giveaway

I have two new albums out:

Ordinary Madness is a collection of three improvisations from four of Australia’s finest improvisers and special guest, renowned Brooklyn-based saxophonist, Tim Berne. This recording presents all of the music made in the studio: no edits or alterations. It also features images from Arthur Leeds Schmidt.

As well as your truly it features: Tim Berne (alto sax), Scott Tinkler (trumpet), Philip Rex (bass), and
Simon Barker (drums)

Sarcophile (the Latin term for a Tasmania Devil) is the debut release from the Marc Hannaford trio, and contains improvisations and original compositions stemming from (American composer) Elliott Carter’s rhythmic language.

It also features Sam Pankhurst (bass) and James McLean (drums).

Ordinary Madness is being launched this Thursday, the 16th, at Uptown Jazz Cafe, 177 Brunswick St, Fitzroy, Melbourne. On the night I'll be joined by Scott Tinkler, Scott McConnachie, Phil Rex and Simon Barker. From 9pm.

For your chance to win a copy of this album simply do two things:

1. Make sure you're on my mailing list (head over to my website, scroll all the way down and enter your email).

2. Answer this question: The poet who inspired the title for Ordinary Madness was born where?
Post your answer in the comments. The first three correct answers (who are also on my mailing list) wins a free download of the album Ordinary Madness.

Monday, February 6, 2012


Alex Ross (you might know him as the writer of "The Rest Is Noise" and/or "Listen To This," both excellent books that are informative on music and it's reception) has a great post on Philip Glass. It's Glass's 75th birthday and the premiere recording of his 9th Symphony has just been released: both reasons to re-visit his music.

I first heard Glass's music at university: I found a collection of piano music by a composer I heard of, but had never heard. Maybe I was fresh from reading Andrew Ford's excellent book "Illegal Harmonies." Who knows.

I remember putting the CD on and not understanding it at all. Why didn't the music do anything, progress, or move beyond the most obvious of materials? I listened to it for a week and abandoned Glass. Unfair, parhaps, but I was deep into jazz, and only really wanted to listen to notated music to absorb some "different sounds."

Recently I've become more interested in music and it's social function. Glass seems firmly in the category of composers who adopts a social function by explicit adoption of social elements: themes seem to often be from current affairs and world events. One advantage of this approach (as opposed to Adorno's view that music best displays a social function by becoming autonomous) is that it is easier for the listener to make sense of the sound. This is crucial if music is to avoid being cut-off from the society in which is exists. It's not a capitulation to 'dumber' audiences but simply an acknowledgment that music cannot demand people 'understand' what composers of autonomous music often proclaim as self-evident truths.

An interesting thing about Glass is that his musical materials remain similar: minimalism is, for him, material enough for social commentary. Hence Ford's quote from Wallace Stevens: "One sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail. / One beats and beats for that which one believes."

This could refer to musical materials as much as approach. I for one am planning on re-investigating Glass. It seems my earlier judgment might have been on the wrong terms.